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The Craving (Chapter 17)

The reception was held in a different grand hall. My brother, Lydia, Bridget, and I formed a receiving line by the entrance to thank and greet our guests. Damon put it on a bit, bowing and pretending to know people he didn't. Compelling them into thinking he was an old friend, no doubt. While Bridget showed off her ring, Lydia gave everyone warm kisses or handshakes or smiles, whatever their relationship dictated. She even laughed when Bram tried to snatch a "farewell" kiss. Bridget stood by her side, beaming with what looked like genuine joy.

"Thank you for coming today," I said time and time again, the words tasting like chalk on my tongue. "We're so glad you could come celebrate with us. My thanks for being here today. Pleased to meet you, thank you so much for being here."

"Stefan Salvatore?" demanded a matron in an almost unmoving thick gray silk dress and pearls, holding on to my hand for longer than was strictly necessary. She pronounced the e at the end of my last name and fixed me with an eye as stony as her skirts.

"Yes, ma'am," I said, giving her as warm a smile as I could.

"Of the Florentine Salvatores? Prince Alessandro?"

"I'm not rightly sure, ma'am," I answered, trying to keep my smile. "When my father came to this country he declared himself an American. He didn't keep up with our old relations."

Her eyes widened and her grip on my hand became loose. "An immigrant. How charming." She didn't smile and pulled her hand out of my grasp, moving on.

Several hundred people later we finally got to sit down. The bride and groom's table was festooned with palm fronds and garlands of huge flowers, and was covered with every expensive delicacy you could want to eat – or show off that you could afford. There was a seafood appetizer of oysters and other delicacies including Scottish smoked salmon and Russian caviar. Then came a main course that consisted of an absolutely staggering number of dead animals: roast beef, quail, venison, pheasant, woodcock, duck, lamb, roast pork, hot and cold, braised and grilled, minced and sauteed, sliced and in pies.

It was all crowned off by a wedding cake, five tiers of the finest fruitcake covered in fondant and decorated with scrolls, swoops, columns, and sugar birds. The black-jacketed waiters poured glass after glass of champagne, and everyone chatted gaily. But my muscles were tied in knots. The "wedding" was officially over. Damon and I were legally married into the Sutherland family. It was only a matter of time before he began the next phase of his plan – whatever that ended up being.

"Darling, get me a glass of water, would you?" Lydia was asking my brother, touching him tenderly on the cheek.

"In some ceremonies, it's the lady's place to love, honor, and obey. Shouldn't you be getting one for me, little wife?" he smiled, but in a way I didn't like.

"Of course! Anything for you, dear," Lydia said. "Water, wine…"

"Blood?" Damon prompted.

Lydia laughed. "If you wish, it's my command."

Bridget didn't eat any of the expensive repast, leaping up from the table constantly to talk to her friends, holding out her hand and showing off her ring. I spent most of dinner nervously pushing very expensive food around a very expensive plate with a very expensive, very heavy silver fork, never taking my eyes off Damon.

As dessert came out, Bram took pity on me and sat down in Bridget's place for a moment.

"Congrats, old chap," he said, shaking my hand. "You and Damon snagged two of the best New York has to offer."

I nodded miserably.

"Mr. and Mrs. Sutherland are just terrific. And Margaret… well, she's a spitfire, but I trust you'll be able to win her over eventually."

My head snapped up. "Have you noticed anything, er, odd about Margaret?" Bram had known the Sutherlands since he was born. Perhaps he had some insight into what made Margaret able to withstand Damon's charms.

Bram scratched his floppy black curls. "Odd?"

"Yes, she's different from the others. Stronger," I said leadingly.

Bram let out a rueful laugh. "That's for sure. One time when we were younger, I stole her favorite doll to use it as a nurse in a war game with my brother. I swear, the look she gave me! She didn't even have to touch me to send a painful shock through my entire body. Needless to say, I never played with her toys again."

"She was able to hurt you without touching you?" I pressed, trying to put the pieces together.

But just then, Winfield tapped me on the shoulder and nodded toward a back room. Damon came with us, a mock-serious look on his face. As we quietly filed past the guests and down a side corridor, I strained to look out the windows. Through trees and towers I could see the mighty Hudson and the Palisades, a golden sun shining down on the sparkling river, the green forests, boats and barges parading slowly up and down the water. I almost did feel like a king surveying his countryside, since marrying into this family set me into the top of New York's highest society.

We entered a dark-paneled smoking room, and Winfield immediately set about pouring some ruby-red sherry. Damon pulled out a silver flask and right there in front of Winfield spiked his drink with blood. Human blood.

"To marriage eternal," Damon said, raising his glass.

Winfield agreed energetically. "To marriage."

I just nodded and tossed back the drink, hoping the cool liquid would sate my thirst.

"There's a serious matter I need to talk to you lads about." Winfield settled his frame into a large desk chair. Damon leaned forward expectantly. I tensed in my seat, ready for whatever would come next.

"The matter of a dowry."

I squeezed my hands together. Damon grinned, exposing his gleaming canines. He threw himself on to a velvet couch. "Just what I was going to ask you about, Father. You don't mind me calling you that, do you?"

"Not at all, my boy," Winfield said, offering Damon a cigar.

My brother took it, carefully trimming and lighting the end in a matter so professional I wondered where he picked up the habit.

The two sat puffing for a moment, releasing large clouds of smoke into the tiny room. I coughed. Damon, enjoying my discomfort, took the effort to blow a smoke ring my way.

"Now here's the thing. I want you two boys to be able to stand on your own two feet. My girls deserve real men, and if anything should happen to me, I want to make sure they're taken care of."

"Of course," Damon said, out the corner of his mouth, around the cigar.

"I have several mines in Virginia; one is gold. They could use some managing. And then there are the railway shares I've bought into…"

My brother widened his eyes. I looked away, unable to bear watching him compel this poor man. "I would prefer cash," he said.

"All right, that seems reasonable," Winfield said without pause or even blinking. "An annuity, then? A living salary?"

"Up front. All of it," Damon said pleasantly.

"One twentieth of my estate, capital, and holdings, then?" Winfield asked politely.

"More like a quarter."

An automaton, Winfield mindlessly agreed to everything Damon suggested.

But I couldn't figure it out – would this keep Winfield safe? Would Damon just keep him around, ordering whatever he pleased out of him?

"I'm glad you're so concerned about taking care of my girls in the manner to which they have been accustomed," Winfield said, but his voice sounded hollow, as if somewhere some tiny part of his mind knew something was terribly wrong.

The poor man drew out some checks and a pen. In a moment it was done, and Winfield presented me with a check with so many zeroes on it, it was barely readable.

Damon bared his teeth in something that was less a grin than a rictus of victory. He stood up, holding his glass of blood-laced sherry next to me. The smell was intoxicating. It took every ounce of my strength not to leap up and drain the cup.

And then Winfield said the most amazing, banal thing in the world.

"Those checks will take a while to clear," he apologized, unaware of how those eight words might have just saved his life.

Damon glowered, thunderheads in his eyes. It was a look of angry frustration that was famous in Mystic Falls, and something no one wanted to be responsible for causing. It was a dangerous thing to disappoint my brother. He crumpled the check in his hands.

"You didn't mention that before," he growled, waving the sherry under my nose. I stiffened, my thirst making my fangs burn.

"I'm going to have to sell a great deal of my estate, capital, and holdings to get the cash to back this," Winfield answered so plaintively it made me sick.

"So do it!" Damon ordered. But I was no longer paying attention. I had to get out of the room. My Power reacted to my hunger – to my anger – and I felt the beginnings of a change.

"I have to…" I didn't even bother making up an excuse.

I pushed my way out of the room, past my evil brother and our sad father-in-law, out of the castle, and into the black night where I belonged.

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